If You need Help Softening Your Heart: Refusing to Label an Entire group (including Muslims) as Strangers

If You need Help Softening Your Heart: Refusing to Label an Entire group (including Muslims) as Strangers
Cultural conditioning is such an odd thing.

I used to be afraid of Muslims. I just was. I logically understood that blaming an entire religion and culture for the actions of a few was not right, fair, or reasonable, and that this kind of thinking would condemn us all if we were honest. That memory of watching huge buildings on fire, buildings I did not even know existed, in September at 14 years old was burned into my memory. It’s natural to want to blame a whole people. It just is. When faced with fear we have a choice between two things: realizing that anyone anywhere can do something severely evil, and believing that it’s isolated to one group who we can attack and isolate. And it FEELS much better to choose the latter even if it’s not based in reality, because it means the fear is with one people and not all of them.

But logically knowing all of that couldn’t change my heart or prevent the pull of wanting to blame one set of people anyway. It was only by living next to them, in a desperate decision based in poor mental health and loneliness, that I began to really change. And while I can tell lots of stories of meeting Muslim friends in a new country and learning surprising humanizing things about them, it was always the little things that started to undo the fear for real.

It was seeing my coworker who was always dressed very carefully concealing every inch of hair (not all my female coworkers did), in the restroom without her robes to reveal an afro, ripped jeans and suspenders under all that.

It was having constant passive commercials showing things like a mother dressed in Hijab making all the silly over-dramatic faces TV moms always do right before they feed their kid something from a box or a can.

It was watching women dressed in that mysterious garb jump on trampolines on the beach with their kids. Or ride four wheelers. Or eat at Pizza Hut.

It was seeing the men wearing those white robes and red checks carry babies and crack jokes and argue about IKEA furniture with their wives. Experiencing those same men worrying if I’m being treated well and if I feel at home as a foreign woman–even worrying that people were placing conservatism on me that as as an American woman didn’t adhere to. And then, those men wanting to make sure I didn’t have to adhere to it.

It’s living next to people that does it–that softens a heart enough to see the humanity. The similarity. The universality.

They’re not just like me, but they’re SO like me it makes me uncomfortable. Because I should have KNOWN that. Because I knew it but I didn’t KNOW.

It’s a terrible trope that Christian kids come home with after a short-term missions trip. “I went there to help people, but they helped ME. I went there to teach people but they taught ME.”

Really, you’d think we’d stop needing to be taught the hard way that often the very people who we look down upon as people who need saving and changing are the very people who could most save and change us. The fault is never in the needing exposure. We all need exposure to each other to truly understand and stop trying to separate ourselves from each other. It’s the innate belief that we are somehow better or MORE than other cultures and people’s. It isn’t unique to Americans, but it is 100 percent damning and damaging wherever it lives.

Fear and lack of understanding can only be healed by living next to each other. Studies have been done. There is literally no other way to undo fear of people who are culturally separate from us. But arrogance and superiority–that is something that God can heal even without exposure. And it isn’t that he couldn’t heal the former without it if he wanted to–it’s just that I believe living WITH each other IS the manner by which God heals such things. But it requires stepping out in faith. Faith that we aren’t superior. Faith that we must continue to cross divides and do what makes us uncomfortable to pursue God’s ideals.

It would be easy to assert that somehow because I chose to go and confront my fears that I am somehow superior to everyone who hasn’t or doesn’t. But it would be a bold-faced lie. I needed to believe that they were the same as me, because I had spend much of my childhood feeling like an outsider in a town full of insiders where most people only came from THERE. And I went to confront my fears because I was in the middle of a death spiral of depression where doing something exotic, even if it felt terrifying and life-threatening was at least something new. It was impressive and edgy. It felt like it had meaning I could wave under the noses of everyone who I perceived as having rejected me. But things did not happen the way I planned, and I grew as a person in spite of my terrible reasoning for doing something so outside of my comfort zone–because God can and does use everything including our own arrogance and stupidity. Here are several of the things I learned in spite of myself:

I learned that doing something exotic does not do anything to persuade people who see you as an outsider to see you as anything else. Quite the opposite. In fact, in many ways where I only perceived people saw me as outside, weird, or different, I managed to get them to actually thinking me that way (where people thought about me at all). If you’re going to travel somewhere to live with people you do not understand, it will always change you. Not them, not the people you left behind, but you.

All religious people should experience someone trying to convert them with all the zeal and passion of a person who loves you but also doesn’t want you to go to hell. It’s humbling to hear words you thought were exclusive to the wisdom of your own religion coming out of someone else’s mouth, but worried about YOUR soul. It’s embarrassing to discover tracts from a religion you were taught was foreign and evil, and realize that they could represent your own religion, with just a few words changed here and there. And it is humbling to realize someone wants you in heaven THAT BADLY. To watch them pace through all the same award steps, asking you to read their Book, come to their gathering, talk to them about their faith. Even when you don’t convert, and never would, it changes you forever.

You cannot help but be grateful to a people when they show you hospitality, even though you are a stranger in THEIR country. Time and again, when you are not FROM a place, you realize just how vulnerable you are. People could ignore your pleas for help when you don’t know what to do. They could refuse to translate what you did not understand. Refuse to give grace when you do the thing everyone there knows you shouldn’t. They could leave you out and justify it totally. You begin to see this again and again. And again and again you find that people help anyway. People DELIGHT in helping. Even the ones who would seem to be most motivated to be against you. The image of God is unmistakable in every place, no matter what you believe or what they believe.

When you are faced with the choice of doing something illegal as an immigrant that would help your circumstances greatly…you probably do it. I worked illegally in Saudi Arabia for 3 years. People paid me under the table. I was so desperate for something to DO, for the feeling of productivity and contribution. In my case, I was lucky enough to not really have to worry about my ability to live and support myself because my husband did have permission to work. AND I STILL DID NOT CARE. Work gives people dignity. But in any case, the point is not that everyone would do what I did, but that you simply can’t know what you will do in a situation until you are there. I worked illegally for 3 years and I wasn’t even worried about my life, children, or ability to feed myself. If you don’t know me, let me assure you that I am not a person who casually breaks rules. I was the kid who reported it if a teacher gave me a higher grade than I deserved. I always return wallets and phones. I own up to things even when NO ONE CARES.

I began to realize just how scared people were of ME. The news and general information out there about my own religion, country, and culture is not great. Some of it’s wrong–but not all of it. Perspective is such an amazing and unreal thing. I could be mad at the media for misinformation–but how could I be mad at my neighbor who trusted their own media and literally knew nothing else? And how could I be anything but IN AWE when that neighbor chose to show kindness and openness anyway?

My next-door neighbor originally assumed I hated them. He was always polite, always kind. Then I found out that someone had reported his beloved German Shepherd and he’d had to remove it from his home. He assumed it was us out of some vendetta. Luckily, we go the chance to talk when I offered to let him and his wife park in our driveway (they had two cars, we had none). When he found out I wasn’t a dog-hater and didn’t even know he had a dog, he threw the switch to total hospitality so fast it made my head spin. They came over to share food and show us vacation pictures, when our son was born he and his wife went out of their way to get us gifts “American style,” because Saudis just give money. (AND HOLY MAN DID THEY GIVE US GIFTS. THERE IS NOTHING MORE HUMBLING THAN BEING GIFTED SOMETHING BY A SAUDI OR FED BY A SAUDI. LET ME ASSURE YOU AMERICANS DO NOT KNOW HOW TO GIVE GIFTS OR HOSPITALITY LIKE THAT.)

Also, and this lesson doesn’t matter so much, but nothing prepares you for eating at a restaurant that claims to be your own country’s food. Just someone’s else’s interpretation of what pancakes and eggs are supposed to be like is rather revealing about how radical perception and understanding can be when they are shifted just a few degrees. The only people who should make American breakfast are Americans and that is one prejudice I will stick to until I die.

You can’t eat meal after meal next to people you thought of as strange without discovering that they are shockingly familiar. They discuss weekend plans and complain about over-involved mothers. They go outside for smoke breaks and discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. They make the same jokes your own Dad makes, just with different politics or religions inserted. They gossip and talk about the weather. It’s hard not to be stupefied as thing after thing you thought came from only your own family, background, culture and country spill out of the mouths of people who dress nothing like you and speak with an accent.

Culture is clothing. It is exterior and shallower than we ever tend think. Humanity is deep, and it is not different from place to place. Living among any people, no matter how different they may seem is revealing: when you go looking for the exotic, often what you find is the totally familiar.

We marginalize the minority, not because we have special rights or conditions, but because that is what humans do everywhere always. Because fear is natural and what we all do.

But I believe we are better. I know we are. I know we can rise above what’s natural and easy.

So listen to music that’s not yours. Watch shows that represent someone different than you. Read books with a perspective that bothers you. Let’s get out of the echo chambers. I’m not asking for change in what you think or believe, only in what you are exposed to. If we passively expose ourself to our neighbors, you’d be surprised how much easier it just becomes to BE neighbors.

And I will never be angry with or scared of someone who asks for such things, who wants the marginalization to stop. Because I want it to stop too. And it’s never as scary as people think it will be. And changing your perspective doesn’t mean losing your beliefs. Often, when we understand other people and beliefs–we understand ourselves better, and what we believe is strengthened.

Fear is a greater enemy than any other set of people ever could be. Don’t let it have you.

If You’ve Been Missing Something: A Morning Car Ride With an Old Friend

If You’ve Been Missing Something: A Morning Car Ride With an Old Friend
Every once in awhile you land in a period of time where for whatever reason, God lands a little extra in your lap in the form of someone else’s need. The kind of need that overwhelms you and all at once makes you hope this means that maybe God thinks you’re competent enough to help out in an important way. (And then you remember, no he doesn’t, no one is, that’s not the point, we’re all hopelessly broken, put down your pride you silly human and just do the thing.)
So I found myself getting up earlier than I usually do, driving across town and sunrise, and giving a much needed car ride.

I kept telling myself, that my grandfather used to get up before the sun to milk cows every morning. A heated car ride at 7 was not in any way something to complain about. A couple of chatty grade schoolers asking me everything from my birthday to my favorite animals were also much better company than cows.

“Mama’s sick, she’ll be better, what’s your favorite month?”

The voice in my head was calling me wimpy for not liking to get up at 6:20 this morning, already oversleeping my alarm by 20 minutes. The voice in my head wondered when the world went to hell in a hand basket and why I insist on being apart of the hell basket. The voice in my head worried that I’d said the lamest things imaginable to my little companions.

The voice in my head.

“Oh hello there,” I thought, finding my way home alone after a cheerful drop off.

“Where on earth have you been? And would you mind whining less?”

I have not had a critical voice as a companion for a very very long time. I think maybe I dropped her off a cliff in a nightmare sometime ago, running ahead of the hoards of scary things chasing me, knowing I did not have space for such dead weight.

I remember it, the dream where I killed her. Or maybe just abandoned her. I looked into her eyes. My eyes. I split a little piece of myself off and threw her into a pit, or maybe a stadium. I can never remember which.

“I have to go now,” she said.

I couldn’t speak as I tearfully threw her in and turned to run as quickly as I could, already longing for her, picturing her body somewhere below the road.

I don’t know why I’ve always thought that. That I intentionally buried or dropped or maybe murdered some piece of myself way back in the early days of my adolescence. That dream. The one after which I never felt quite whole. Never a kid again but not really ever grown up.

There’s one picture of me in particular that reminds me of that murder, or abandonment. It’s a drawing, actually. The assignment was to draw a self portrait. I did it late at night after procrastinating. I didn’t want to do it. Finally I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, balancing my sketch book on the sink edge. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t want to. What came out felt so vulnerable that I glued cartoons around it to soften the way it made me feel. It’s the way my face looks when I drop all pretense. When I’m concentrating instead of trying to make it look like something else. It made me feel like it was obvious something was missing in my natural state. Years later after rescuing it from water damage and lugging it halfway around the world, that look still gets me. I love it and I’m afraid of it.

Every time I see those eyes in my mind I shiver a little. The me I killed. Or maybe just lost. Who is she?

But today I heard the familiar voice. The one that was mad when I had to share my things no matter how new or how nice and I had to bite my tongue if someone broke them. The voice that felt murderous when someone brushed barbie’s hair and then popped her head straight off. The one from the day they killed my favorite trees, and the day they killed the one I decided to love after them.

She’s always known how she felt, and never shied away from critical tid-bits, either at myself or others.

I know people who spend their entire lives running from their critical voice. But I think I’ve been looking for mine, like a child on a milk carton. “Have you seen this girl? If found, she will probably tell you to tuck in your shirt and get a haircut and maybe not to chew so loudly.”

Someone to care about dishes that haven’t been done, or exactly the right way to fold socks. Someone who buys the clothes I actually want in the right size and knows when someone else has been rude. Knows when I’ve been rude. The voice that forced me to give the Sunday school money back that I stole from Ashley Conklin. (I think that was her name.) But also the one who knew that when that kid in fifth grade punched me, he should have been the one to get in trouble, that I didn’t have a big mouth–it was in fact exactly the right size.

And this morning I realized she had found a seat in the car next to me and was staring me down. Chastising me for being wimpier than a dairy farmer. But comfortingly patting my arm as I drove home smiling from my journey. I’d done what I said. I showed up, the ride was given. Such a small thing. Such a good thing.

Do you know what’s worse than having a critical voice? Having one with no power. Having one that doesn’t matter. Having one that got thrown over a cliff sometime ago out of a need to survive. I’ve been making due with resentment and stubbornness masquerading as critique for some time. But those voices could never do her job. It was always about some personal vendetta, or digging in my heels so someone doesn’t make me give what I don’t want to, or what I can’t, or what I don’t have enough of yet again. It turns out absolutely nothing else could do her job.

I’ve missed her so.

So I found myself driving home, noticing what I think is shabby, or out of shape, or missing, or just a little skewed.

What a relief what a relief what a relief.

For when you can notice what is wrong, maybe you finally have a chance to fix it, or even prevent it.

And if she’s back, maybe nothing is chasing me anymore. Maybe anxiety can give way to anger. The good kind. The primary anger that rights what’s wrong with a level head and confidence I often lack.

I drove home from my morning run to sit with my family around a kitchen table eating cereal and drinking coffee. The good kind pressed in a French press. Dare I say, the right kind?

I do this, sometimes. I invent a reason why something that’s been wrong could be right all of a sudden. I epiphanize myself right out of reality. Maybe I’m just telling myself I can grow a critical voice, a voice that cares and understands what is right and wrong, needed, expected, and handles it well. Maybe the fact that I envisioned my critical voice as a child I tossed over a cliff into the shadows a long time ago is crazy. Maybe it’s way too telling. But maybe–maybe if I lost her in a dream, maybe I can find her in one too.

“That’s too much sugar,” she says. “Do you really need that much sugar?”

I smile to myself. Maybe I don’t.

If You’ve Ever Yelled at Your Neighbor (Thoughts about Quirks and Bad Behavior Vs. Spiritual Gifts)

If You’ve Ever Yelled at Your Neighbor (Thoughts about Quirks and Bad Behavior Vs. Spiritual Gifts)

“I’m a monster,” said the shadow of the Marquess suddenly. “Everyone says so.” The Minotaur glanced up at her. “So are we all, dear,” said the Minotaur kindly. “The thing to decide is what kind of monster to be. The kind who builds towns or the kind who breaks them.”

Catherynne M. Valente

Most people don’t think it when they first meet me, but I have been in an impressive set of verbal and physical altercation stories for someone who is often assigned adjectives like “nice,” “quiet,” and “I don’t know who that is.”

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Recently I got into one such altercation which I detailed on Facebook and then later deleted, because:

  • The responses I got from friends were not quite what I was hoping for,
  • Just in case my neighbors could somehow connect with me on Facebook now or we actually become friends later I really don’t want that post hanging out
  • It came off as way more judgmental than I wanted even though I was trying to leave out any details that sounded condemning of others involved.

Responses were overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and while I feel really ungrateful for saying this, they didn’t really give me any comfort. I think this is what I had on my mind:

  1. Does this happen to other people? Please tell me it does.
  2. It makes me feel better to tell the story of how silly I was to stand on a milk-crate and put my leg through it causing bleeding and bruising (for some reason). But also I want sympathy for physical discomfort and being an idiot.
  3. I actually kind of want to know what other people do in this situation instead. And most of the time that kind of advice would come off as preachy and I appreciate that people didn’t just give it. But although #1 is on my mind, I’m pretty sure by now out of experience that other people (ones I respect anyway) generally deal with these situations differently.

I did finally just ask a friend what she would have done and she said, “I would have walked away and told him I’d be happy to talk when we could talk without yelling.”

I had a seriously “well duh” moment just about then,

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along with my own head commentary which carries full knowledge of how I handle conflict when it’s not directed at me.

I used to work as a cashier at Wal-Mart. When customers inevitably got angry and aimed their accusations at me, I had a line: “You can stand here and yell at me, which I’m happy to let you do, or you can let me go get you someone who can actually solve your problem. I don’t really care which, but one is definitely faster. Your choice.” And I really would serenely stand there and nod empathetically if they kept yelling.

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Once I single handedly solved a years long neighborhood dispute with a little old lady who always came out to yell when kids in the community space made too much noise. In the middle of a really tense shouting match between her and one of the mothers I simply stepped in, rested my hand on the older woman’s arm and asked, “Are you feeling ok? You seem like maybe something is really wrong other than the kids.” She broke down into tears and told me her life story, apologized for yelling at the kids, and said she wouldn’t bother us anymore. (She never did as far as I know).

I can take joy in just how calm I can be in the face of spitting red faced fury. Calmness is both offensive to the angry and completely impenetrable. It’s beautiful. So why can’t I seem to keep it when I’m in situations where someone actually has the power to hurt me and I really do have responsibility for what they are angry about?

One of my dearest friends in the world thought very seriously about NOT being in relationship with me at the beginning of our friendship because I admitted that I occasionally have a scary temper, and then she witnessed it.

We were walking on a sidewalk together when a car who was trying to take a shortcut to a parking lot was actually driving up on the sidewalk behind us. She immediately stepped out of the way and motioned for me to join her. But I instead slowed down to a painful speed and said, “I’m not moving. We are supposed to be here. That car is not.” She nervously joined me, not fully knowing what to do. When the car finally honked at me I spun around in a second, and slapped a hand on his hood. I yelled, “THIS IS A SIDEWALK! PEOPLE WALK HERE!”

Guys, it was a car. It could have run me over. I was in a foreign country where I really wasn’t sure they wouldn’t try. That story simultaneously makes me laugh and feel like a complete fool.

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And how could you not wonder, as my friend (or boss), about what would happen if I ever aimed that temper at you? Or couldn’t hold my tongue in a situation where it was harmful to everyone not to do so? I think about that all the time. If I make myself feel like a bomb that could go off at any moment, how must I make other people feel?

That same friend who witnessed the car slapping, DID eventually decide I was worth the trouble, and (I am so grateful for this) decided that at least usually my escapades involve me seeking some sort of justice.

In a recent conversation we discovered we had both had similar experiences involving a Ouji board and a party. Neither of us (being people who seriously believe in the spiritual realm and that messing with it is a very bad idea) wanted to play. My friend had cleverly avoided conflict by moving the Ouji dial around intentionally herself to make sure nothing else could. She got out of an actual spiritual encounter and freaked all her friends out at the same time–but she wasn’t sure she felt good about it.

Me? I said very soundly to my friends, “You guys can all get yourselves killed by a demon if you want, but if you get that thing out I swear I’m walking home right now.” (I lived miles away and it was very late at night, but I meant it.)

“See?” said my friend, upon hearing the story. “That’s why you are the way you are. Every friend group needs someone who does that.”

I guess at least my friends would never end up victims in a horror movie. That’s something right?

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I wish I had a more thoughtful way to end this, except to say that I have insisted over and over again that though we may sometimes use our gifts badly, those quirky attributes often ARE gifts and they are there for a reason. If you start out on a maze and a mythical minotaur gives you a key, there will be a lock you can open with it somewhere–and it won’t matter if you pick your nose with it or use it as a hair barrette. And God is so much kinder than minotaurs.

As long as you keep the keys you are given (and try to keep them out of your nose), they will make sense and be there when you find the locks they are for. That’s what I’m hoping.

If Your Voice is Small

If Your Voice is Small

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

I’ve seen you, fellow quiet sojourner. I know people ask you why you don’t talk too. I admire you, because you are probably better at just saying nothing rather than letting awkward dribble escape now and then, just to prove you exist, like I do. I wish I only talked when I really wanted to. That I didn’t feel pressed into small-talk, which it turns out isn’t often remembered at all anyway. I feel kinship with you, even while I want to give you space and not insist on doing the same thing to you which most people do: expecting friendship, or entertainment, or patronizing conversation where I’m only insisting we talk because I somehow think it’s my job to get you to do it. I see you. I tend to think you are better than me, because you are more comfortable with your backstage place, less worried about how much you exist in the worlds of others, less inclined to fill in the spaces with conversation you don’t really want to have.

Do you, like me, sometimes keep your mouth closed because you know the only thing that would come out would be disappointment or disdain? Or maybe sometimes because you aren’t interested in the conversation going on, and you just honestly don’t know how to pretend to be excited? Or maybe you accidentally dropped off into your own fantasy about a magical land where cups of coffee are always bottomless and naps are long and thunderstorms always come at 3 o’clock sharp after plenty of sunshine so that rain is always whimsical and dreamy (and never just cold and dark) and animals really do understand what you are saying and people never ever think that being quiet means that you are less capable, or less smart, or less important?

And I’m guessing that you, like me, are always just a little startled when the label “quiet” is applied at all. Because it’s not quiet in your head. Because when you are one-on-one with someone you really care about you can go on for hours. And if you measure only the talking that people do that they really care about, and really deeply mean, the amount is really about the same. And I bet you, like me, have a hard time regretting not being into fluff conversations. And hopefully you, unlike me, don’t have a lot of regrettable fluffy conversations on your conscience, because you, unlike me, are a more dignified version of “quiet.”

Maybe you, like me, trust words more when you’ve had time to think about them and when you can set them down on paper. Or screen. Not a place where they just float out in the air to be forgotten, or misconstrued later, but in a place of permanence where they can be counted, measured, and heard again and again. Because words can be such slippery dangerous things when you don’t pin them down properly. (It’s so much easier to be held responsible for something I can prove I said, rather than for something I don’t quite remember saying or that I’m sure I said in another way).

And do you, like me, struggle not to roll your eyes when yet ANOTHER charismatic go-getter with a loud voice and a tendency toward pandering and a total lack of appreciation for thoughtful types has been elected as your boss, or pastor, or mayor, or president of the adorable cats appreciation club? (Just kidding, obviously cat lovers would never do such a thing.) Do you sigh with relief on the rare occasion when someone who values substance and reflection and honesty, and occasionally quiet, actually manages to be the leader of something? Do you then roll your eyes again as all the charismatic go-getters scramble to be that person’s friend now that he has some influence?

I think God made sure Moses was in the bible just for us. People talk about his speech impediment, but they act like he must have been yet another charismatic go-getter who just happened to have a stutter and would be just as loud and charismatic and go-getting as the popular leaders they are used to. They forget about his reluctance to lead at all, or his quiet response over and over again to merely go and pray when the Israelites were ready to kill him. Or the fact that when more charismaticky go-getters thought they deserved leadership just as much as he did that they were struck-down with leprosy or sucked straight into a hole in the ground.  (Look it up. It’s not smart to spurn God’s quieter ones). God has raised us, defended us, loved us, valued us, and occasionally smote the loud ones on our behalf. And a quiet man got to deliver the law, organize God’s nation, and see the Messiah when he first showed his true form.

 

Know that when I see you, I do not think of you as quiet at all. You speak volumes beloved friends. Not all words are spoken. Not all meaning needs words at all. And sometimes, silence can be the loudest response of all.

 

*Note: I do not actually advocate for the smiting of loud people…mostly.

 

If We Are Becoming

If We Are Becoming

This pain has worn me well

This sorrow has made me rich

What is sadness then?

In the hands of the blessed

The children of glory

It is only the path to becoming

A way of wealth and joy

For we love a man of sorrows

Whose tears were more than gold

Whose heart held riches through pain

And who made a way to become

So we do not despair

We become

What greater joy is there

Than for one who has seen death

One who has seen the hellish broken

To delight in the early morning

To breathe deep and fully

Who knows doubtlessly

It was only becoming

And she is becoming still

I did not feel the rush of joy and protective hormones you are supposed to feel when they put my son in my hands for the first time. I found myself instead, scrounging around for something anything that would help me grasp the moment. But I couldn’t. This little squishy and slightly sticky bundle was a stranger to me. What I felt upon the birth of my son was not love, or new identity, but relentless, heavy, unbreakable duty. And that was all I had to go on.

I was not prepared at all for the relentless nature of motherhood. The diapers that always had to be changed again. The fact that the next time he would need to eat would be very soon. Always soon. The endless need for sleep and the constant realization that what sleep I got barely touched the ever growing debt of exhaustion that had wound itself around every cell in my body and settled deeply into my soul.

And when I looked at him,  I felt all the freedom I used to have and how very very dead it was now. And always duty. And pity too, because none of this was his fault. And he had me as a mother. And I did NOT feel like a mother.

There were so many things that made me feel that way. Breastfeeding was not possible for me and my son became dehydrated and lethargic before I discovered that fact, to my horror. I did not handle sleep deprivation with any kind of grace. I did not find sitting next to my son all day alone as he made gurgling noises thrilling in any way. I had already begun counting down the days until he turned 18–because my new mom brain thought that it would be exactly like this forever.

What I wish I could tell myself back then more than anything is “hormones or not, no one becomes a mother in a day, or in many ways even in a year or in two. Becoming a mother takes a long time, and I suspect, it never stops. You are becoming one right now, even if you don’t see it yet.”

In many ways, I think my own identity of mother is more a mark of what I have done than of any ability I ever had before that. I am now a mother to two very special boys. A mother of a 4 year old and a 2 year old. I cannot be a mother with all the wisdom of one who has say, a 10 year old until I have earned that by doing it over the next 6 years. I am becoming. I have become. And it is that becoming which matters so much.

I have always struggled under the weight of feeling like I simply AM things. I AM good at math or I AM bad at directions. Hard work wasn’t really about anything other than sheer production to me. I did not know you could get better at things, as strange as that may seem.

But as I have tried to get away from this faulty idea in my adulthood, I have run into the wall that I think so many in my generation do. That I also cannot be ANYTHING I want. If I decided I wanted to be a professional basketball player, I could not make that happen. My lack of any natural grace, and short stature would ensure that. I could get better at it than I am, but I cannot choose what I can be excellent in outside of a narrow set of skills and tendencies and biological leanings. So then I have to ask myself, what is it that I am actually capable of becoming? Can I even know that? Can I be a good mother simply because I want to be? Or a writer? Or a friend?

For the most part, I think all we can choose is what to grow toward. If I go outside when I can be alone, and manage to find a moment to slip off my shoes and feel the earth beneath my feet and I breathe deeply and let the world feel big and myself feel small–one thing is obvious. We were brought into a world of ever growing things. We are made to be ALIVE and not to be still.  We WILL grow in some way and toward something. And growing things tend to always grow toward that which gives them the most energy.

I really hate to think of what growing toward Netflix looks like. Or comfort eating. Or 8 cups of coffee in one day. But by grace, by so much grace we can grow back again and again toward something better, no matter how much we lean to lesser things. I don’t think we always have to know what it is we need to become if we fix our eyes on the work that has specifically been set before us, and on what is good, and worthy, and true. It is not the seed who ultimately ordains this miracle, or the planter, but the God who made them both. 

There were so many places in my life where I was not yet who I wanted to be, but those moments were often the ones that eventually pushed me closer to who I was supposed to be, and to the passions that make me who I am. And I do not regret a single ounce of pain from any of those moments. For they brought me here, to this place in my life and every blessing or gifting I have. And I do not know if I am the best mother that has ever existed (I can guess pretty well that I am not), but I am the best mother I can be to my very own two boys and I will be better yet tomorrow. Even more than this, the joy I find in my identity as Mother now is breathtaking. I leaned in, I showed up, I watered that ground with faith and transformation happened so slowly I never saw it until it already was.

I wish I could say to so many many pieces of myself scattered back through time, “You are becoming. You were not made for this moment alone, but for another one, and many more–and for all of them put together.” 

If You’ve Never Been an Immigrant (When you need a Human Life Preserver)

If You’ve Never Been an Immigrant (When you need a Human Life Preserver)

Immigrants are some of the bravest people I can think of in this world. And if you have never been one, there is just almost no way to explain how incredibly terrifying and difficult it is to step into a new place where you not only don’t know the rules, but you don’t even know that there are rules you don’t know. I have been an immigrant in another country, and that was tough for sure. But I was somewhat prepared for it as an adult. It doesn’t hold a candle in difficulty to the first time I ever immigrated within my own country.

The first time I stepped foot into the cafeteria at Doudna Elementary, I had no idea where I was supposed to sit. No one had told me where to sit, or how seats were assigned in the cafeteria. At every school I’d ever been in, seating was assigned. At the previous elementary school I attended, it was not only assigned, but done by class in alphabetical order. For four years I had always sat next to the kids whose names were nearest mine in the alphabet. Four years is practically an eternity for a 9 year old.

So with great anxiety, I looked for the kids who my cubby was next to in my new 4th grade class: Daniel H. and Beau H. And I was in luck! They were sitting together! They must do alphabetical too. Not wanting to stand there looking stupid any longer I hurried over to sit with them.

They looked at me like I was some kind of cockroach. Something was definitely wrong. My calculations were definitely off. But not knowing what else to do I ate my lunch as fast as I could and left. I walked out onto the playground where all my new classmates were playing. None of the games looked familiar. No one invited me. I really had no idea where to start and I had already tripped up pretty badly in guessing, so I just sat alone.

Later on I would find notes that my 4th grade teacher made about me and wrote to my mother. “Does not play with the other children. Does not get along with classmates. Spends too much time alone.” Not once had my teacher EVER asked me what was going on or why I wasn’t playing with my peers. What I DO remember was being told soundly that trying to talk to my teachers at recess was inappropriate and I needed to stop. (I had tried to start there because I was generally comfortable in the world of adults. Or at least had been before that.)

A couple days in, I realized something that seemed totally overwhelming about the cafeteria debacle. Kids sat wherever they wanted to. That had just not been the culture of the blue collar school I had come from where such enormous choice might be dangerous. It had not even occurred to me ONCE that the reason the cafeteria was indecipherable was because there were no rules at all to where one sat.

I finally settled on sitting at a table which was mostly occupied by girls from my class. They didn’t seem too thrilled about my presence either, but it was at least getting less of a shocked reaction than the boys I tried. I had no idea that I was sitting at the “popular” table. I just quietly sat at one end, and tried to put as much of my body as I could into the hole that the tables were folded back into when the cafeteria once again became a gym. I listened to what people said, and mostly didn’t talk.

Once I made the mistake of engaging in a game from my old school and tried to “match” boys and girls from my class as couples–but mostly based on putting people with the same color of hair together, the same height, same nose shape, and so on. Kids at my old school weren’t really seriously pairing off yet, so the game was pretty innocuous. But at my new school, couples were already serious business and one of my first couplings was one of the cool girls with a less than cool boy. She immediately told me she would put me with the very large kid in class and started to tell other people about it. I was horrified. I wasn’t trying to mean, but she clearly was.

I was trying to play by the rules I knew. And it did not work.

One day I showed up to sit in my spot at lunch, and the queen bee of the table was already sitting in it.

“Look Andi!” she called out mockingly “I’m sitting in your spot! Are you going to cry? Are you going to try and make me move?”It felt like she saw me drowning and decided that it was high time she took my life jacket, and maybe gave me a good push under as well. I stared at her for a moment. People weren’t perfect at my last school. I knew that when someone was getting made fun of it always got worse when they fought back. So I just picked another spot and I said nothing. I intentionally never sat in my favored spot again.

That was the beginning of a lot of days where I said absolutely nothing. When kids stomped on my feet, I got Mom to buy me steel toed shoes and never explained why. When someone punched me at school and the teacher took his side, I swallowed it. I didn’t want my parents trying to fix it or defend me. When a teacher decided she HATED me because of my Dad’s politics, I just went about my day and tried to dodge her accusations and back biting as much as I could.

Do you know what eventually happened? You should.

I started cracking. The kid who had once kept her head down and really really tried to make the best of things and put a positive spin on everything died. Sometime in Middle School I started arguing. I threw things back at the bullies. I even hit a few kids (careful not to get caught mind you.) I got in food fights. I snarled when people even sounded like they might be thinking of being mean. By the time I graduated with those kids I was known as abrasive and opinionated and definitely oversensitive.

I know this can come off as a long oh poor me kids were mean to me once blog. I hate that. Please know I hate that. Because what I’m really trying to point out is NOT that those kids were bad and I was good. I’m not trying to make any statements about the relative pain of my own school experience compared to anyone else. I’m saying that because of my different culture and expectations for how things worked, I got off to the wrong foot in my new home–and I really never got back on totally. I made new friends, but I never recovered with those first people and I had a very very hard time trusting people in my community.

I was from Kansas, friends. I moved to another state in the same country. The people in that town were not bad, so much as completely unequipped to deal with someone who did not know what they knew. And it did not have to be much. I spoke the same language. I looked quite a lot like them. But it was still enough difference to make a mess of things before I had hardly even gotten started.

I now work with immigrants and people who don’t speak English well because every time I look in their eyes I feel like I just get a little of where they are in life. They are doing everything they can to fit in and blend just like people want them to. And they work so hard to do just that. But what do you do when you have no idea how to pay your rent or that putting garbage out at regular scheduled intervals is a thing? What if you have no idea most Americans aren’t really into a kiss on the cheek and that pointing with your middle fingers is not a good idea, even if that’s how you pointed back home? The only thing that fixes that is if someone comes along and is 1. Kind enough to tell them 2. Understanding enough to forgive them for any previous mistakes.

And even stupid little mistakes in a brand new community can set you up to fail basically forever.

You know what DID eventually help me find a place to belong, and enough to survive, so that thank the good Lord, food fights and a few kicks to the shins were the worst things I actually did? The people who adopted me. The friends I had until the end of high school who were gracious to me and who filled me in on what I was missing (and forgave me for being a bit grumpy and oversensitive at times.)

Friends save lives people.

Friends save immigrants who don’t know how to do very basic things to function in their communities.

Friends save minorities swimming against a sea of people who want them to be just like themselves.

Friends save silly lost girls in grade-school cafeterias.

Friends save anyone who by no fault of their own is a little off the right path and doesn’t know how to get back to a safe place.

Always ask yourself if someone did something rude because they ARE rude, or if there is some piece of culture or personal history you might be missing. And you know what? You can always always ask. Often, almost always, people have reasons for what they do.

I think standing in the gap for someone is one of the most enriching and empowering things I have ever ever been blessed to be able to do. Because in some small way, I feel like I am getting to reach a hand of comfort back to my child self, who didn’t even know where to sit in the freaking cafeteria. And all it really takes is friendship freely offered with room to understand someone with a different story than my own.

So I’m pleading with you. Wherever possible, figure out where people are drowning in culture or even just in life and throw them a life vest. Heck, go and be a damn human life preserver. Because one day, if you are very lucky, you will need a human life preserver and someone will be that for YOU.

And you will never ever forget that person.